Monday, November 25, 2013

Playoff Notebook: CMass Sweeps WMass for Trips to Gillette

Davon Jones gets some serious air on this first quarter St. John's touchdown vs Springfield Central.
By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

Central Mass went a perfect 4-0 against Western Mass Saturday in the state semifinals, as St. John's, Doherty, Northbridge and Littleton all earned spots in their respective Super Bowls at Gillette Stadium.

Those Super Bowls, which will serve as inaugural football state championship games for each division, will take place on December 7th. But, each of those teams must first play a Thanksgiving Day game, thanks to the new statewide playoff system that forces teams still alive in the playoffs to play, effectively, meaningless games against their old rivals.

How the coaching staffs and standout players on each team handles this will be interesting to see, and I'm sure I'll be at one of those games to keep you posted on playing time and whatnot. Anyways, I'll have full previews of each Super Bowl up next week, but now let's take a look back at how each CMass school got to this point.

Division 2: St. John's

Next Up: Mansfield

The Storyline: Back on Top

St. John's had lost five in a row to rival Leominster, and though people weren't talking about it as much, had also dropped its last two to cross-town rival Shrewsbury. The offense that was supposed to lead the Pioneers to greatness was held to check against Fitchburg, but receiver Michael McGillicuddy's miracle kickoff return (McGiracle™) saved St. John's from starting the season 1-2.

The Pionners seemed to be on track after a statement win over Nashoba, but were held to just 22 points in a loss at Shrewsbury. Two weeks later, St. John's fell behind upstart Marlboro 20-7 at halftime, but then things started to click.

Quarterback Drew Smiley, already one of the state's best players, took his game to another level, leading the Pioneers on a 28-0 run to close the game. That offensive momentum would not be halted, as St. John's entered the playoffs and blew out North Middlesex, followed by Marlboro again, then got over the hump, outscoring Leominster 51-42.

Beating Leominster and recapturing CMass would have made the season successful enough, but the Pioneers didn't stop there, as they upset uber-talented Springfield Central 37-32 in the state semifinal. It's taken a while, and there have been some bumps in the road, but St. John's is again one of the state's premier teams.

Breakout Player: Davon Jones, Jr. WR/S

While Smiley has taken his game to another level, and transfer running back Shane Combs has added another dimension to the offense, it's hard to see St. John's at Gillette without outstanding play from Davon Jones. The versatile athlete had his best offensive game against Central, while also grabbing an interception, and you could make a case that no defensive back in the state has outplayed him the last month of the season.

St. John's has had it's defensive issues, but Jones' range at safety helps mask most of them.

Division 4: Doherty

Next Up: Dennis-Yarmouth

The Storyline: Potential Realized

Those familiar with the history of CMass football know that Doherty isn't exactly a powerhouse. Far from it, actually, as the Highlanders were often the only chance for regional bottom feeders to pick up a win.

Things have changed a bit.

Even before last season, we knew the Highlanders had talent. Isaac Yiadom was a highly regarded athlete finding his niche, and Luke Brennan was developing into a reliable quarterback. But, it wasn't until this year, with an improved supporting cast, that those two were able to carry Doherty to historic heights.

The emergence of red zone threat Alfred Adarkwah and shifty receiver Mitch Celaj have made the Doherty passing offense one of the best in the state, and the toughness and added maturity of Matt Smalls, Shawn Jackson and Peter Franco on defense have made the Highlanders a complete team.

Doherty needed to get over the hump and win a playoff game. Check that off after a win over upstart Hudson. They then needed to beat Shepherd Hill, the same team that had eliminated them a season ago. Check that off with a thrilling, come-from-behind 32-28 win in Dudley.

The Highlanders looked sluggish early in their semifinal against Wahconah, but weren't going to let this magical season slip away. When you're around this team, it's clear: They KNOW it's their year.

Breakout Player: Jahkari Carpenter, Jr. RB

The receiving corps gets a ton of due credit, but Doherty wouldn't be here without Carpenter's elusive running. The junior has several highlight reel runs and catches this year, and it was his consistent play that kept the Highlanders afloat when they fall behind in their last two games.

Doherty faces its biggest challenge yet against Eastern Mass champion Dennis-Yarmouth, and the game may set the stage for Carpenter to take control of this offense for next season.

Division 5: Northbridge

Next Up: Bishop Fenwick

The Storyline: Bouncing Back

It hasn't exactly been smooth sailing for the Rams this year.

They knew they would have a ton of talent to replace on offense, but the program first had to deal with allegations of hazing in the pre-season.

After an uneventful season-opening win over Oakmont, Northbridge was unceremoniously blown out at Tantasqua 40-3. They followed that game up with a 15-7 loss to struggling Auburn, and suddenly the playoffs seemed like a long shot.

The Rams have won eight in a row since then, including upset wins over UConn commit Tom Rodrick and Leicester, high-powered Bartlett, and Saturday's last-minute win over Hoosac Valley.
I said last week that Northbridge went into the CMass-WMass game as, probably, the biggest underdog of all the Central teams. It seems the Rams are relishing the underdog role, as nobody in the state has done more with it this season. They will again be underdogs at Gillette, facing a loaded Bishop Fenwick team.

Breakout Player: Koby Schofer, So. QB

Could it really be anybody else?

The versatile sophomore, and grandson of head coach Ken LeChapelle, is one of only two players in the region to throw and rush for 1,000 yards this season, and his game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass to Chandler Brooks Saturday was one of the greatest plays in Northbridge's illustrious history.

The Rams had to be managing their expectations at the quarterback position. After all, replacing a great player like Matt Phelan is never easy, but Schofer has made it look effortless. With a run to the state championship already under his belt in year one as a starter, the sky is the limit for this true dual-threat quarterback.

Division 6: Littleton

Next Up: Cohasset

The Storyline: Respect Earned

Coming into the season, many of the Division 6 story lines surrounded West Boylston and, at least for me, Blackstone Valley Tech. Well, both of those teams lived up to their hype, but Littleton was simply better, defeating WB to start the season, and topping BVT to win CMass.

The Tigers have been the most dominant team in the region, having not truly been challenged since their season opener against WB. The closest game Littleton has played since then? A 52-44 win over St. Bernard's, whom they beat again by 16 in the playoffs.

The Tigers were simply out of WMass champion Turners Falls' league last week, running all over the Indians in a 52-26 route that wasn't even as close as the score makes it look. Cohasset will present a much bigger challenge at Gillette, but Littleton has already earned respect state wide. The Tigers are now playing for unofficial honor of "best small school in the state."

Breakout Player: Alex McLaughlin, Sr. QB

Speaking of guys with 1,000 yards passing and rushing… Here's the other one. McLaughlin has done it all for the Tigers on offense and, paired with running back Travis Bassett, has formed one of the most unstoppable backfields in Central Mass.

His 31 combined touchdowns certainly jump off the page, but it's the efficiency with which he and Bassett work that has made Littleton so difficult to stop. His 10.8 yards per carry leads all players in CMass with over 100 carries, and Bassett isn't too far behind at 9.6 YPC.

Good luck getting a team off the field when they're gashing you like that on first down.

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